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Kansas Senate Further Tightens Welfare Rules

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The Kansas Senate on Thursday approved a bill to further tighten welfare eligibility rules.

The measure – Senate Bill 372 – adds new restrictions to rules established last year in a controversial bill that drew national attention.

Last year’s bill, named the Hope, Opportunity and Prosperity for Everyone (HOPE) Act, lowered the lifetime limit for cash assistance to 36 months from 48 months. The follow-up bill that won Senate approval Thursday reduces the limit to 24 months but allows for “hardship” extensions of up to an additional 12 months.

The Kansas Department for Children and Families estimated about 420 households would be affected if the 24-month limit is adopted this year.

The bill also tightens work requirements.

Sen. Michael O’Donnell, a Wichita Republican, pointed to reduced enrollment in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program as evidence that lower lifetime limits and work requirements have been effective in encouraging people to work and getting them out of poverty.

“Having the opportunity to get a work requirement in the bill allows people the opportunity to get their GED, to go to college,” he said. “That’s what’s going to make the difference between being in the cycle of dependence and being out of it.”

In December 2015 there were about 13,000 Kansans on the TANF rolls, down from about 40,000 when Gov. Sam Brownback took office in January 2011. During that same period, the monthly cost of the TANF program declined from $4.4 million to less than $1.5 million.

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Wichita Democrat, disagreed with O’Donnell’s assessment that people no longer enrolled in TANF could quickly find jobs.

“People are out of jobs,” she said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do unless you can show me we’ve created the businesses that are going to create the jobs that are going to pay the living wages.”

The bill initially would have required DCF to cross-check public assistance recipients with a list of people who had won $10,000 or more from the lottery. The committee lowered the threshold to $5,000.

The bill requires food assistance recipients to accept a “suitable employment offer” and forbids them from quitting a job if they were working at least 30 hours per week. The penalty is a three-month ban from food assistance for the first offense, followed by a six-month ban for the second offense and a one-year ban for any subsequent offenses.

Non-disabled adults receiving cash assistance also are required to work, search for work or be enrolled in job training. Mothers of newborns are exempt from the work requirement for three months.

The Senate rejected an attempt by Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, to extend the “new mother” exemption to 12 months. The debate on the proposed amendment touched off a skirmish between Hensley and Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Hutchinson Republican.

Bruce recently circulated a memo to Republicans outlining a legislative strategy for helping them win re-election. Among other things, the memo said there was “popular support” for tightening welfare rules. Waving a copy of the memo during Thursday’s floor debate, Hensley accused Republicans of putting politics ahead of the interests of struggling Kansans.

“And I can tell you that I’m not going to play politics with the lives of poor people,” Hensley said. “I think that is shameful.”

That provoked what seemed to be an angry response from Bruce, who said efforts by Republicans to reform a wasteful welfare system “that put people in poverty and kept them there” constituted both good policy and good politics.

“What we have done here in Kansas not only is popular with the people … it is getting results,” Bruce said. “We are providing a pathway for Kansans that are poor to have their dignity.”

Other provisions in the bill prohibit individuals who don’t cooperate with fraud investigations from receiving public assistance, require DCF to monitor requests for replacement benefit cards and to investigate possible fraud if a household requested a replacement four or more times, and require the state to verify the identities of any adults in a household receiving public assistance.

Megan Hart is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach her on Twitter @meganhartMC

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